Black and Blue at Night: Is Barry Sanders the greatest of all time — or overrated?

By
Updated: July 6, 2012
Some claim that former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders is the greatest of all time?  Is that supported by the facts, or is he overrated?

Some claim that former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders is the greatest of all time? Is that supported by the facts, or is he overrated?

Former Detroit Lions superstar running back Barry Sanders is enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame — and justifiably so.  He was one of the scariest big-play threats any opponent ever dreamed of facing.  I admire him for never doing a touchdown dance, for simply handing the ball to an official after a score and going on with his business. He was the consummate professional.

But as much as I admire the man, I think that after all these years, it’s time someone asked the tough question:

Why did the Lions have so little success during Sanders’ tenure?

It’s not like Detroit lacked weapons.  Herman Moore was one of the best wide receivers of his era, and Brett Perriman was a viable weapon. Chris Spielman was an awesome linebacker. The pieces were there for the Lions to win a championship in the Barry Sanders era. So why didn’t they?

The fundamental problem the Lions faced was that they built their offense around a back who was too much of a “boom-or-bust” player. Never blessed with flashy speed, Sanders’ ability to maintain what speed he did have was off the charts. As a result, he was one of the best in NFL history at breaking the long run. However, at times he was so intent on looking the big gain that he was hit behind the line. In fact, Barry Sanders is the NFL’s all-time leader in negative plays from scrimmage; no one else even comes close. In his 10-year career, he had 336 negative plays go for a total of -952 yards (-2.83 yards average).

Although that -2.83 yards might not seem like a big deal, it’s actually quite damaging to a team’s chances of success. While a false-start penalty pushes the offense back five yards and does make it more difficult to move the chains, a negative three-yard run is even worse — because in addition to the loss of yardage, the offense loses a valuable down. A 2nd-and-13 scenario, which forces the offense to move 6.5 yards per play in two downs, is more difficult to convert than a 1st-and-15 situation, which requires the offense to only gain 5.0 yards per play in three downs.

A team that consistently puts itself in negative down and distance situations struggles to move the ball down the field, convert first downs, and score touchdowns. This is why coaches often talk about “staying ahead of the chains”: If an offense can get to 3rd down with four or less yards to go, the coach can utilize his entire playbook. But if the team is forced backwards, the coach is limited in the plays he can call, and it’s easier for the defense to make a stop.

Something else to keep in mind is that while Barry Sanders did score a large number of touchdowns in his career (109), 99 of them coming on the ground, he was frequently taken off the field in goal-line situations in favor of someone who would just plow through the line. How can any player be considered the best ever at his position when his own team believed their chances were better with him on the bench in critical situations?

Sanders could be spectacular in the regular season, yet his performance in the playoffs was abysmal.

Sanders could be spectacular in the regular season, yet his performance in the playoffs was abysmal.

Just as telling, Barry Sanders was terrible in the postseason, when great players normally shine and have games that define their careers. Whereas in the regular season, Sanders scored one touchdown every 35 touches, he had only one touchdown in 112 postseason touches. In four outdoor playoff games, Sanders only averaged 2.8 yards on the ground with a high of 65 yards. He turned in his most infamous flop at Lambeau Field in the Wildcard Round of the 1994 playoffs, where the Packers held him to -1 yards on 13 carries — and had to gain 12 yards in the second half just to reach to reach that mark.

The Lions had a paltry 1-5 postseason record during his career, their only victory coming in the 1991 Divisional Round en route to defeat in the NFC Championship Game at the hands of the Washington Redskins. To put this in perspective, Barry Sanders was the only Top 5 all-time leading rusher never to make the Super Bowl. He held that dubious distinction until late 2011, when LaDainian Tomlinson of the San Diego Chargers edged out Jerome Bettis of the Pittsburgh Steelers for No. 5 on the all-time career yardage list.

Never in the history of the NFL has a player’s track record of postseason futility been so ignored by historians of the sport.

Why did Barry Sanders wait so long to inform the Detroit Lions he was retiring, instead of giving his team a chance to find a suitable replacement?

Why did Barry Sanders wait so long to inform the Detroit Lions he was retiring, instead of giving his team a chance to find a suitable replacement?

Even Sanders’ retirement remains a bit of an enigma. Instead of informing his team in a timely manner that he was hanging up his cleats, he waited until July of 1999 — after the draft, after all major free agents had been signed, and the start of training came was at hand — to fax his retirement announcement to the Wichita Eagle, his hometown newspaper.  The Lions were left to hold the bag with no real options.

At the time of his retirement, Sanders was only 1,457 yards from tying Walter Payton’s career rushing record (since passed by Emmitt Smith), a milestone he may reached in 1999 or at the latest 2000. Some speculate he retired in response to the Lions’ insistence on going with Charlie Batch as their starting quarterback. Others argue that his decision was a tip of the cap to Walter Payton, an admission he wasn’t worthy of holding the record.  Whatever his motivation might have been, it was completely classless to drop this bombshell on his team hours before training camp opened.

Like I said earlier, this article by no means intends to discredit Barry Sanders’ Hall of Fame credentials. He was a class act, and he deserves his bronze bust. But to call him the best running back of all time is simply not supported by the facts.

___________
As usual any questions, comments or homicidal rants you can reach me at [email protected]

About the author(s)

Living in Chicago but reared a Green Bay Packers fan, Mike Gabelbauer is a veritable encyclopedia of witty comebacks when it comes to football. He serves as Content Manager of the Water Cooler Sports Network and also presides as commissioner over our weekly Pick'em Contest. Feel free to drop him a line with questions, comments, suggestions, or requests for assistance at [email protected]. His email account is handicapped accessible.

461 comments
nappyhoose
nappyhoose

Wow, you're dumb.  Barry Sanders was taken off the field in short yardage because Wayne Fontes was an idiot.  He didn't want Barry to get hurt.   Barry didn't perform well in the playoffs because the team didn't perform well in the playoffs.  The O-Line was particularly bad as were the QB's.  Barry's numbers were down in the playoffs because the Lions were completely outmatched.  He was the only reason the made the playoffs 5 times during his 10 year career.   91 - They beat Dallas and lost to the dominant Redskins who went on to win the Super Bowl. 93 - They lost to GB who was starting their run as one of the most dominate teams in the NFL. 94 - Again lost to GB who's defense completely dominated the Lions. 95 - Smoked by Philly because the Lions defense completely laid an egg and Mitchell threw 4 picks.  Barry only got 10 carries because the Lions were so far behind - 38-7 at the half! 97 - Lost to TB.  Lions were starting to fall apart and TB had the 3rd best defense in the league and showed it during the playoff game.  It's a wonder that Barry was able to break 2000 yards that year.   While the Lions didn't have terrible O-Lines during Barry's career, they only had 3 good lineman - Lomas Brown, Kevin Glover & Mike Compton.  The had Utley and Andolsek who would have been good if not for injury/death.   They never had a good QB or a dominate defense.  That's what wins in the NFL.  To put the Lions lack of success solely on Barry's shoulders is completely unfair.   How can any back that averaged 5 yards a carry and 1500 yards a year under a head coach that changed offenses and coordinators and QB's almost every year NOT be considered the greatest RB of all time?

sage80_wanker
sage80_wanker

quite literally the dumbest thing I've ever read.

bp.
bp.

Finally, a finish.

natesweet
natesweet moderator

Hmm. I am having dicey connectivity while on my way home to host tonights show. Anyone want to join me as cohost? It pays nothing and has the potential to be humiliating. A "don't miss" opportunity.

 

Rourke
Rourke

Could someone be an angel and co-host the show tonight?  My world is spinning with fever.

welfarecheese
welfarecheese

The Olympics are really going to help pass the time between now and football.

welfarecheese
welfarecheese

I'm going to a street dance in a redneck town, no doubt I will get to experience some ultimate fighting action.

natradamus
natradamus moderator

 I think I am heading out to watch the fights-  everyone have a great night.  If you do not have anything to do an some disposable income-  catch UFC 148 tonight.  It is the first good card they have had in quite a while.

welfarecheese
welfarecheese

U.S. lineup:  Lebron, Griffith, Durant, Westbrook, Kobe

How in the hell does someone have the gonads to claim that Spain can match that talent?

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

oh wow i didn't realize how stacked the card is. i only heard about Silva/Sonnen and Ortiz/Griffen but Faber is never a boring fight 

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 @welfarecheese meh i never watch the Olympics, i just can't get into sports that only get any exposure every 4 years 

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 @dalaislama i'm debating, i could watch it on line for free but the feed is iffy at times or i could order it and spend $60 on a fight i think will be over quick 

natradamus
natradamus moderator

ok- not quite yet-  I have another ten minutes to burn

Gabes22
Gabes22 moderator

 @welfarecheese

 The problem with USA in the Olympics has never been a lack of talent, it's been 5 guys all fighting for top billing

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 @welfarecheese they are going to have a hell of a time on the blocks with that starting 5 though, how do they intend to stop the Gasols

Rourke
Rourke

 @droog  You want to be on? You've said several times you would like to try your hand at it. Why not tonight?

welfarecheese
welfarecheese

 @aciddragon No one cant match the speed and skills of the USA players.  Execution?  That's the question.

welfarecheese
welfarecheese

 @aciddragon Honestly, both could go for40 and the USA won't have a problem.  But, Durant, Lebron and of course Griffith can match up if needed.  But, no doubt they'll have a center in there.  I was just pointing out the most talented guys.

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 @bpalton007 idk it was just on the promo during the prelims, then again who knows when that was made 

Rourke
Rourke

 @droog  I need to get the show set up for Nate. He is not by a computer.  I will do that and then head back to bed.

droog
droog

 @Nonstopdrivel

 man just go to bed and rest. and whatever you do, don't fap. that just makes you sicker in my experience

Rourke
Rourke

 @droog  Varicella is a lot more dangerous as an adult.  I hurt from head to toe, and I am probably going to have to miss my audition for Rocky Horror Show.  Fuck.

Rourke
Rourke

 @droog  When you are an adult, it is. When you are a kid, it's not such a big deal.

droog
droog

 @Nonstopdrivel

 varicella sounds like a kind of ice cream but i'm sure it's quite nasty

droog
droog

 @Nonstopdrivel

 dude you honestly don't want me on the air, i would be wasted and high and saying horrible things about cops

droog
droog

 @Nonstopdrivel

 that doesn't sound good drivel. you should make Kat make you a grilled cheese sandwich and go to sleep

natradamus
natradamus moderator

 @aciddragon so they could build up the heavyweight championship for an hour.  they were trying to desensitize the audience to MMA before the fight.  they just left the audience disapointed 

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 @dalaislama they should have known better, the dumb part was they has Guida on the card and he had a great fight, why only put 1 fight on TV 

natradamus
natradamus moderator

 @aciddragon I hope this is not another quick fight.  I felt bad for the UFC when dos santos won so quickly on the UFC Fox debut.  nothing could have been worse for UFC than a minute heavyweight championship for their primetime debut

welfarecheese
welfarecheese

 @aciddragon I was amazed by Westbrooks ball skills and getting to the hole.  His decision making is lacking, to say the least.  They have Chris Paul.

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 @welfarecheese that's the big question can they play together. who is the point guard? not Westbrook

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 @welfarecheese after watching him too bad Rubio got hurt that would have closed the talent gap considerably 

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 @welfarecheese ah i thought that was the announced starting 5. yeah they'll have Chandler in there for size and defense 

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 @dalaislama the only way they could fix the cutting problem is by have a second weigh in the day of the fight and they would have to be at a certain weight at that time 

natradamus
natradamus moderator

nothing can solve the cutting weight problem, you will just have bigger guys doing it if you move up the weight classes.  I do think moving 205 to 215 or even 220 might help with some competition for bones jones though

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 @dalaislama its just such a big gap, when you got guys like Carwin, Dos Santos, Valazquez ect. the smaller heavyweights are at a severe disadvantage or the could reorder the divisions and make 205 like 215 or something. another thing that bugs me is cutting weight Silva will come into this fight at probably 215lbs even though he weighed in at 184 

natradamus
natradamus moderator

 @aciddragon too many divisions is one of the things that destroyed boxing.  I wouldn't mind one in between those though

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 @dalaislama i agree, i also think they need more divisions, cause the gap between 205 and 265 is way too big, 

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 @dalaislama  @bpalton007 h so the truth comes out. but Shields is boring i can't stand lay and pray wrestlers, they get the take down then do nothing  

natradamus
natradamus moderator

 @aciddragon  @bpalton007 2-2 in UFC.  I think that record is more accurate of a fighters ability than strikeforce or any other league. the guy is over 30.  Silva is better against strikers, but is a very well rounded fighter.  I like watching shields lose so I would catch the fight.  My girlfriend used to think shields is hot.  fuck that guy.

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 @dalaislama  @bpalton007 personally i think Silva should be forced to move up to 205, he has no competition at 185 so he should fight at 205 while they restock the division 

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 @dalaislama  @bpalton007 idk he might he is a great wrestler, which seems to give Silva fits, but Shields is a boring sonofabitch 

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 @dalaislama  @bpalton007 that could be fun. too bad Le was too old by the time he came to UFC and could make a legit challenge to Silva